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HFC Phase Out Fallout

How will recent proposed changes to the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act affect the environment and the facilities industry?

By Jason Henninger

It’s not news that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are harmful to the environment. Their Global Warming Potential (GWP) vastly exceeds other refrigerant options. To reduce damage to the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol was developed in the late 1980s, with the additional Kigali Amendment in 2016 intending to implement global reductions in global warming. While HFCs don’t affect the ozone layer, they are significant greenhouse gasses contributing to global warming.

The American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act implements regulatory approaches set in the Kigali Amendment for the HFC reduction schedule. This schedule will reduce high-GWP refrigerant production and consumption in the U.S. by 85% by 2036. Certain states — New York, California and Washington, especially — have put programs into place that align or surpass these phase-out initiatives, with similar restrictions gaining traction in other states.

Understanding the Proposed Change

The recent proposed change to the AIM Act states: “The primary goal of the proposed rule is to establish an Emissions Reduction and Reclamation Program that reduces emissions of climate-damaging HFCs from equipment such as air conditioner and refrigeration systems, and maximizes the amount of HFCs that can be reclaimed.”

The AIM Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate GWP refrigerant phase-down, safe reclamation of HFCs and promote the transition to newer, more efficient technology. According to the EPA, they are “not proposing any provisions that would require anyone to stop using their existing equipment” but rather “proposing these regulations for the purposes of maximizing the reclaiming and minimizing the release of regulated substances from equipment and ensuring the safety of technicians and consumers.”

The EPA states that the key provisions of the proposed rule are as follows:

  • Leak repair provisions for certain appliances

  • Use of automatic leak detection for certain new and existing equipment

  • A proposed reclamation standard

  • Requirements for the use of reclaimed HFCs for certain types of equipment in certain refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump (RACHP) subsectors

  • Requirements for the use of recycled HFCs in fire suppression equipment

  • Certain provisions for equipment in the fire suppression sector, including technician training

  • Recovery of HFCs from disposable cylinders prior to disposal

  • Container tracking for HFCs that could be used in the servicing, repair, and/or installation of refrigerant-containing equipment or fire suppression equipment

  • Recordkeeping, reporting and labeling

FMs can find a full description of the proposed rule here.

Proposal in Practice

What do these proposed rules mean for the environment and for FMs? Broadly speaking, the questions center on reducing leaks, replacing the refrigerants and/or refrigeration units with more efficient machines and reclaiming HFCs.

Morgan Smith, North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council
Morgan Smith, North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council

HFCs are “one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions globally, so naturally they have attracted the attention of policymakers at the state and federal level as a way to achieve their climate targets,” said Morgan Smith, Program and Communications Director at the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council.

Supermarkets are substantial users of HFCs and tend to have high leak rates, so the impact of any change made in reduction or reuse will affect them directly. “An average supermarket system uses around 3,500 pounds of refrigerant,” Smith said. “Due to the size and complexity of a supermarket refrigeration system, they're inherently leaky. It's really difficult — some would say impossible — to build a leak-proof system. The average leak rate for supermarkets in the U.S. is 25% annually, which is approximately 875 pounds of refrigerant released from each store on average every year. For high-GWP HFCs, that equates to a tremendous amount of emissions just from supermarket refrigeration leaks.”

When refrigeration units are functioning correctly, the environmental risk is low. The risk mainly comes from leaks or improper installation or removal. As the machines age or get damaged, leaks happen, venting HFCs into the atmosphere in small amounts over time or more serious, substantial events. As such, proper maintenance is crucial. However, even a well-maintained refrigeration unit remains vulnerable because of the large number of people — customers, employees, suppliers and others — who come into direct contact with the machines.

Robbie Drake, Murphy, USA
Robbie Drake, Murphy, USA

Robbie Drake, Senior Manager of Operations Maintenance for Murphy, USA, oversees maintenance for more than 1,600 convenience stores, primarily in the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest. How does this proposed change affect his work? “As long as it's not leaking, you should be OK,” Drake said. “But what does change is your repair-versus-replace decisions. When you have a failure, do you want to replace it and go with something that has less global warming potential? We haven't really taken any steps to proactively go out and convert anything over [to newer technology], but it has changed our approach. It changes your capital planning to consider if you’ll want to replace more units next year than you had previously. But hopefully, in increasing that capital plan, you can reduce that expense line as well.”

Reduce, Reuse or Replace?

Richard Lord, Carrier Corporation
Richard Lord, Carrier Corporation

One of the challenges FMs will face in deciding how to phase out HFCs is what refrigerant should replace them. While ammonia, propane and CO2 have vastly lower GWPs than HFCs, they each have issues of their own. Richard Lord, Senior Fellow at Carrier Corporation, breaks it down. “Ammonia is used a lot in refrigeration, but it is a higher-toxicity refrigerant and also cannot be used with copper. Propane is a good refrigerant, but it's highly flammable. CO2 can actually be a decent refrigerant but is not efficient for comfort cooling. It's non-toxic and non-flammable,” but he added it must be operated at very high pressure.

Jonathan Tan, Ratio Institute
Jonathan Tan, Ratio Institute

Beyond the outright replacement of HFCs, technological advances in machine learning can reduce the risk of leaks. Jonathan Tan, Co-founder of Ratio Institute, pointed out that where once technicians had to make adjustments to the machinery by hand, monitoring apps can now oversee operations in an ongoing and minute level, thus reducing the chance of leaks developing or going unrecognized. “Now we can track and monitor the systems in the cloud. We can send alerts and diagnostics, and we have machine learning that can give us an idea of what's happening before you send in a technician. A technician today on a standard system has to tap into it with a set of analog dials. If you install AI controls on the front end, you don't even need to deploy your technician. They can just pull the information up on an app.”

One of the aspects of the proposed rule is the recovery of HFCs from disposable cylinders prior to disposal. “End of life is where we have the biggest opportunity to get technicians to recover refrigerants,” Lord said. Sometimes, technicians will, when replacing a refrigeration unit, simply vent the old refrigerant into the atmosphere, which is not only harmful to the environment but also wasteful. This underscores the already significant need for highly-trained technicians, especially those who specialize in EPA standards.

No matter your company’s immediate HFC policy, facilities professionals should educate themselves and be prepared for all future regulations and standards. This ensures that all facilities are in compliance with any potential changes without disruptive changes to facility operations.

Learn more about the HFC refrigerant phase out by watching ConnexFM’s Virtual Learning, “The HFC Refrigerant Phase Out: Are You Ready?” today!

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